Diva, muse and composer of genius

In Mulieribus celebrates Pauline García Viardot in season-opening concert

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Pauline García Viardot–“Diva, Muse and Composer of Genius”–will be cradled in the capable voices of In Mulieribus on Sunday, October 17. She deserves it. Viardot nurtured the art of so many others in her famous salons–composers, painters, writers whose careers flourished because of her.

Well, it’s Madame Viardot’s 200th birthday year, and Portland’s premiere female vocal ensemble wants to return the favor. Her life story as opera singer, friend, wife, mother, teacher and music salon hostess is entertaining yet incomplete. For she was a prolific composer whose brilliant works should also be nurtured. This is what IM does best.

In the pandemic hiatus, In Mulieribus transitioned to virtual performances in their well- produced “Visions” series, reaching far beyond the borders of the US. Dr. Anna Song, Artistic Director, reports new connections in Holland, Korea, Puerto Rico. That’s been a plus; this return to the live stage, perhaps a victory.

Song has chosen pieces which showcase Viardot’s six decades of vocal composition. The works also showcase the magnificent solo talents of the singers of IM, with solos, duets, one kick-in-the-pants trio, and two full-ensemble performances.

Let’s learn some of the story of this extraordinary life and examine the attention IM will give to Pauline García Viardot, composer of genius.

1826: Paris to New York

Viardot is the darling of the Atlantic crossing. Patiently observing her parents’ preparation for their roles in several Italian operas, including the American and Mexican premieres of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. A little French girl, barely five years old, she is bedazzling fellow passengers with her ability to converse in French, English, Spanish and Italian.

She was, by many accounts, a music prodigy. Her Spanish-born parents understood and nurtured her gifts and provided her musical training. Nicknamed “the ant,” she was the little sister of two much older siblings. Brother Manuel had already developed a career on stage and in vocal pedagogy. Sister Maria (Malibran) was considered the leading opera diva of the decade. Young Pauline excelled at the piano and in her composition studies.

1932-1938: Paris

Viardot is eleven, and the death of her father means the loss of love and mentoring and difficult financial circumstances. A year later, mother and Pauline move in with sister Maria, who is embroiled in highly publicized marital chaos. When Maria dies tragically at age twenty-eight, Pauline is nurtured to fill that void and makes her concert debut, touring Germany at age 15. She is on tour in 1938 when she meets Felix Mendelssohn who introduces her to Robert Schumann and his future wife Clara Wieck, who will become Pauline’s lifelong friend. Pauline’s first compositions are published.

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The earliest works of Pauline García were first published in 1838, two songs on German texts. One was published under French title in a Paris periodical, the second issued in a quarterly collection of varied pieces published by Robert Schumann. In the next decade, several works would be released in newspaper supplements and many more would be published in collections, such as Twelve melodies on Russian Poems

“Fleur desséchée,” from that collection, will be performed on this concert by Kari Ferguson. The text, by Russian poet/author Alexander Pushkin is translated, as are many of Viardot’s texts, by Louis Pomey,  painter and close friend of Viardot who exhibited his works in her salons. Ferguson will sing this endearing piece in French, and two additional Russian poems will be sung in German by Susan Hale and Hannah Penn. 

Penn, who lectured and performed on the 2019 IM concert featuring the works of another unsung female composer, Barbara Strozzi, will perform “Die Beschwörung”, the final stanza of which is:

I cry to Leila not

to plumb the secrets of the grave,

nor to rebuke those

who killed my love,

nor even because of the bitter despair

which tortures me.

No, only to tell her that my

stricken heart is still true;

is still breathing

Come to me! Come home!

We should appreciate that a female composer (or singer) of this period was breaking tradition with texts not–ahem–appropriately suited to the gentile feminine sensibility. Balderdash. Sing it!

1939-50: Paris and beyond

Pauline García makes her operatic debut in London and Paris. She is engaged for the season at the Théâtre-Italien in Paris and marries its opera director Louis Viardot, 20 years her senior. It is a union encouraged by her new friend, Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin (better known as George Sand), who counsels Garcia to marry for advantage. Louis leaves his job to become her manager and her opera career thrives. Their first child, Louise, is a toddler when the Viardots spend a very successful operatic season in Russia in 1943. Pauline befriends writer Ivan Turgenev. 

The family is now living in their second home, “castle” Cortavenel, on the Paris outskirts and have converted the attic into an intimate theater. Turgenev is also living in Cortavenel and his writing is inspired. Camille Saint-Saëns, who will become another close friend, often accompanies Viardot at her salons. Viardot has begun a very important connection to Frédéric Chopin—first with his Mazurkas, several of which she has transcribed for voice and piano, then with Chopin himself. Viardot, Chopin, and his life partner–George Sand–share company, intellect and music.

Susan McDaniel is the collaborating pianist for this concert. Special note: in the following paragraphs as the diverse and virtuosic vocal works are discussed, notice that Susan McDaniel is partnering on every piece. Brava. McDaniel’s exemplary talents are essential for these works.

As Viardot was a consummate pianist herself and accompanied many artists in her salons, she understood the relationship between voice and piano. Certainly, this is evident in the Six Mazurkas of Frédéric Chopin

Catherine van der Salm performs “Lamento” and the Chopin mazurka transcription “Plainte d’amour.”  While the voice takes the melody of Chopin’s Mazurka No. 1 in F#m, the piano reinforces the characteristic rhythmic mazurka lift on the second beat,  then—whooosh—fingers flash in a characteristic Chopin riff. Viardot encourages the voice to catch the wind, soaring to the heights before coming back to earth ever so gently. Such is the “pleasure of love.”

Just as fun and with a twinkle will be “Coquette,” sung by Penn. This Chopin mazurka (#5 in Bb) is one you’ll know, but probably not like this. Jog your memory with this tidbit of the original. See, you know it! Come hear it set for voice and piano by Viardot with Chopin’s blessing.

1850-1885: Children, retirement, leaving France

The Viardots have three more children: Claudie (1852), Marianne (1854) and Paul (1857). Turgenev’s daughter is living with the Viardots as well. Mme.’s stage career is very successful in the next decade; she retires in 1863. She accepts some roles, mostly on composer requests, and collaborates on several composing projects. The family moves to Baden-Baden for several reasons, including the French political scene. The Viardots return to Paris in 1871. Mme. focuses on composing her chamber operas, publishing more song collections and teaching. The salons continue.

She is introduced to the music of Tchaikovsky by Turgenev, who triangulates a relationship regarding the Russian composer’s music over the next 15 years. Tchaikovsky, whose Russian benefactress is Nadezdha von Meck, finally meets his French champion in 1886. Both Louis Viardot and Turgenev die in 1883.

One of Viardot’s four chamber operas (or operettas) is represented in this program. Le dernier sorcier, story and text by Turgenev, was premiered privately in Baden-Baden in 1867 and publicly at the Court Theater in Weimar, Germany in 1869. The “Choeur des Elfes” from Act 1 of this two-act work will feature the entire IM ensemble.

The term havanese (havanaise, habanera) might make you think of Bizet’s famous “Habanera” from Carmen. You are correct: there was a “Cuban” aesthetic trending late 19th-century music. But let’s recall Viardot’s ancestry and the paternal family name “García.” Echoes of strumming guitar, a stillness and then a dance, major and minor tonal shifts riding the text. To whet your interest, here is “Havanaise” arranged by Viardot from a song written by her father Manuel García, performed by Cecelia Bartoli. 

Imagine that magical sound washing over you as Henriët Fourie and Amanda Jane Kelley sing two songs from the set Six songs and Havanese variations, “Hai luli” and “Moriro” respectively.  

A song for “Les trois belles demoiselles,” or “three fair young ladies”—Fourie, Ann Wetherell and Susan Hale–is thrice the fun. This IM trio will portray these girls, oh so proper yet oh so…well, you choose the adjective.

To close the concert, all the women of In Mulieribus take the stage, sharing the vocal lines of “Habanera.”

This concert has been curated carefully by Song. The works are plucked from the times, travels and relationships in Viardot’s fascinating and successful life. Mme. Viardot, who died in Paris in 1910, was encouraged to write her memoirs but never did; pity. If this concert inspires you to look further into her life you will learn more about her famous parents and her brother, Manuel, vocal pedagogue who developed the first laryngoscope; of oldest child Louisa (Heritte), composer and successful vocal coach; younger daughter’s broken engagement to Gabriele Faure; of encouraging and inspiring the music of Gounod, Berlioz, Saint-Saëns, Faure and many others; and mentoring young vocal talent to successful careers.

What you will rarely find is Pauline Garcia Viardot’s name on a list of great composers or even a mention of her in a tome on the history of Romantic music. She is under-represented or neglected outright in general music classes.

Viardot is mentioned peripherally in biographies of other composers of her era–as their inspiration, their muse. Rarely is her music heard.

Susan Hale, In Mulieribus musician, admits she was unaware of Viardot until this project. “Her repertoire doesn’t appear in octavo form in the usual sources I would draw from for high school choir. When I’ve shared her name with colleagues, they don’t know of her either. IM is privileged to introduce her to our audience.”

In Mulieribus and Song are champions of the rarely heard. A model taken, perhaps, from Pauline García Viardot herself.

In Mulieribus’ 15thseason premiere concert is Sunday, October 17, 2:30 pm at Portland’s Old Church Concert Hall, 1420 SW 11thAve. Purchase tickets and find out about the rest of IM’s season here

Masks and proof of vaccination with ID are required. If you are not comfortable in a public setting or are not vaccinated, register for the online concert highlights, which will be released on October 22, 2012.

Choral connections – extending the pleasure of meeting Pauline Viardot

Food

Veal Orloff (Orlov) is the original name of this dish developed around 1850 for Russian Prince Orlov by his French chef, Urbain Dubois. Modern chefs suggest that beef is a much better choice for fuller flavor (and for other humane reasons). Sliced and pounded loin meat, layers of sautéed onion, mushrooms, covered in a Mornay sauce, baked. Individual ramekins are preferred as they are more beautifully crusted than a pan bake. Tip o’ the hat to Mary Tyler Moore’s Veal Orloff episode “The Dinner Party”, 1973.

Literature

Ivan Turgenev’s short story, “The Rendezvous”, published posthumously, offers a lovely little moment of yearning in 19th-century Russia.

Wine

Could Pauline Garcia Viardot get good Manzanilla (sherry) in Paris? Manzanilla is the famous sherry of Seville, Spain, where her father was born. Not necessarily a good pairing with Veal Orloff.

Short film in honor of Mme. Viardot

This brief video “She is Music” is a nicely composed photo montage in honor of Mme. Viardot.  The video is produced by soprano Kay Krekow. Pay attention to the creative credits at the end.

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About the author

Daryl Browne is a music educator, alto, flutist and writer who lives in Beaverton, Oregon.

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